Once upon a time, the United States of America – the world’s self-styled "beacon of democracy" – nearly nuked China’s then 600 millions worth of innocents. This, before Beijing even had any A-Bombs of its own. Well, that much we’ve known, in broad strokes – though, I fear, without the requisite resultant soul-searching – since historian Gordon Chang’s 1988 journal article (which I was assigned in graduate school en-route to West Point’s faculty): "JFK, China, and the Bomb."
Chang’s peer-reviewed scholarly submission made waves – at least in academia – by disclosing the rather profound fact that the Kennedy administration apparently seriously considered colluding with even the Soviets to, per a later erudite authorial follow-up, "Strangle the Baby in the Cradle.” In other words, to coerce China into abandoning its nascent nuclear program – and if necessary destroy it (even with hydrogen bombs) – before Beijing could produce a viable weapon.
That was circa 1961-64. Ultimately, the Chinese did test their first bomb in October of the latter year. And you know what? Nothing much happened – little changed, America endured, the world didn’t end. If only those poor souls – and their no longer truly communist descendants – knew they came so close to being needlessly sacrificed, or never existing, on the altar of U.S. strategic absurdity.
Well, what’s done is done, right? Wrong(!), says 90-year old national treasure activist, scholar, writer, and "patriotic whistleblower” – of Pentagon Papers fame – Mr. Daniel Ellsberg. On the contrary, he recently disclosed an apparently still-classified document, indicating that six years before Beijing’s first bomb test, in response to Communist shelling of islands controlled by Taiwan in 1958, the US drew up plans to carry out nuclear strikes on mainland China.
Parts of that obscene story have been known since the DOD declassified selected portions of the analytical study of the crisis back in 1975, but the government kept-censored certain sections demonstrating that US military leaders had pressed for first-use nuclear strikes on China – despite predicting that the Soviets would likely retaliate in kind. In other words, senior generals and admirals were willing to accept the deaths of millions of people – including Americans – by slaughtering countless citizens of a non-nuclear nation, in defense of a non-essential, non-treaty ally.
Surely that’s grotesque – but why reveal it now? Well, Ellsberg apparently copied the top secret study about the Taiwan Strait crisis at the same time – some 50 years ago – as he did the Pentagon Papers, but is only now highlighting it amid rising "New Cold War" tensions between the United States and China over islands in the South China Sea and notably, once again, Taiwan. With both Uncle Joe and The Donald seemingly trying to "out-hawk” each other on China in the recent election – and with tit-for-tat rhetorical and military show-of-force exercises now the order of the day in both Beijing and Biden’s Washington – Ellsberg is apparently hoping against hope that a radical act of risk-accepting courage could cool heads even just a tad.
That alone would be worth the effort. Yet there’s more continued relevance, and further reasons, to release this analysis of otherwise ancient history at this particular moment. Because the fact is that most past is prologue, and sometimes isn’t even past. Ultimately, what Ellsberg disclosed documents madness – the pervasive madness of American policymakers, and perhaps power more generally. And if we’re to survive as a species, that’s always a subject worth studying.
Relevance#1: Reminding Us of Past Policy Madness
The first thing the document reveals, which should by now be undeniably obvious – yet somehow isn’t – is that America’s leaders weren’t, and aren’t, inherently more rational or humane than most others. That may still shock plenty of uncritical, surface-level, pageantry patriots here in the "Land of the Free" – but it’s demonstrably true by most basic philosophical and policy track record merits.
That those oh-so-venerated "Great Generation" leaders, who reached the very pinnacle of America’s adulated military hierarchy, would even consider calling for the incineration of millions of Chinese children – despite predicting (correctly or not) a Soviet nuclear retaliation certain to wipe out thousands of their own forward-based troops, and perhaps millions of stateside American civilians – starkly evinces senior US leaders’ capacity for callous cruelty and cowboy-like foolhardiness.
Which is further proof that, as critical historians have long argued, often as not, Washington was the provocative party and madcap-wildcard in the Cold War. It often still is. Not that the United States is on all levels the worst empire in history. Even Ellsberg admits it is not. However, he has recently pointed out that America does "have one peculiarity: We invented the Doomsday Machine as a tool of our influence." And, as the document he just released shows, America’s immensely popular military leaders were often wildly cavalier with their advice on just how the president should wield that almost godlike power. Thankfully, Ike – like a later Kennedy – ultimately balked.
It’s a good thing too, since of course, as with the later Kennedy-era wolf-crying Chicken Littles, the risk-ending-the-world enthusiasts among Eisenhower’s civilian – and especially military – advisers proved another set of stunning alarmists. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, though typically remembered for his United Nations shoe-banging theatrics, proved rather rational regarding the whole Taiwan Strait imbroglio. He’d already sensed a impending split in the never monolithic – except in delusional American eyes – communist camp, was increasingly alarmed by Mao Zedong’s supposedly supercilious view of nuclear war, and within in year responded by ending Moscow’s technical assistance to Beijing’s nuclear program.
Here was another close call for civilian catastrophe – not that key figures in the ride-to-victory on claims of a non-existent "missile gap" [with the Soviets], Kennedy administration took any heed from that 1958 mass-murder near-miss.
Relevance#2: Exposing America’s Past&Present Madcaps
That’s the second reason Ellsberg’s release of the classified portions of the Taiwan crisis study is timely and ever-exigent. Since the Second World War, and off-the-rails-especially since the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War "show” and the 9/11 attacks, a fetishistic myth has developed of the military man as moral beacon and sober strategic realist in a world of ethical and civil competence decay. That’s what all the humbug about the supposedly Trump-restraining, only "adults-in-the-room” generals, carelessly bandied about by the establishment’s faux liberals was about. Yet what history shows, and what not just Ellsberg’s documents reveal – but both JFK and Ike eventually knew – is that the notion of savior generals is not just misplaced myth but delusionally dangerous. Perhaps that’s why it was precisely the sections of the top secret study revealing the attitudes of senior military officers towards nuclear options in the Taiwan Strait that the the government kept censored. Even a cursory read reveals why.
Take the document’s depiction of top Air Force commander for the Pacific, General Laurence S. Kuter’s recommendations back in 1958. This character wanted delegated authorization for a first-use nuclear attack on mainland China at the onset of any conflict – bold talk for an officer who flew scant combat missions in all of World War II and was regarded by peers and superiors alike as mainly "staff material." Now, he was willing to accept a proposed plan to kickoff the war by – at least initially – only nuking Chinese airfields, so as to assuage skeptics of, you know, mass (foreign) murder and mass (domestic) death inside the Eisenhower administration.
Not that Kuter had any respect for such "doves," stating at one meeting only that "There would be merit in a proposal from the military to limit the war geographically [to just air bases], if that proposal would forestall some misguided humanitarian’s intention to limit a war to obsolete iron bombs and hot lead." Damn those rascally peaceniks who’ve proven indisputably right in opposing incinerating countless civilian millions every single time, am I right?
Then there was the military’s very top leader, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Nathan F. Twining. The Ellsberg document paraphrases this madman as saying that if bombings the air bases – and, given the nature of nuclear payloads, thus killing who knows how many nearby Chinese civilians – didn’t force Beijing to back off Taiwan, there’d be "no alternative but to conduct nuclear strikes deep into China as far north as Shanghai." Got that? No alternative, no alternative at all – real creative sort, America’s top military man at the time!
Sometimes such nuclear-possessed generals and admirals have proven not just strategically obtuse and deranged, but potentially insubordinate madcaps. As he recounted in The Doomsday Machine, during his many fact-finding trips across the Pacific Ellsberg surveyed top US commanders in Asia about their likely response to receiving a theoretical presidential order to direct their bombers only at the Soviet Union in a bilateral war. Even he was shocked by the responses, in which the senior military men’s (mostly Naval) branch-, and Pacific theater-parochialism led them to not only be horrified by the "out of the question" prospect of not simultaneously nuking China’s cities as a matter of course in the event of a strike on the Soviets – but to not-so-subtly hint that they’d likely assume the order an (obviously "insane") mistake, and consider doing so anyway.
Lest Ellsberg seem alarmist in his assessments of these military men, or in his motives for releasing the 62-year old classified document now, recall that after working on nuclear command and control war plans – traveling around the Pacific and meeting with real-life Air Force strategic bomber commanders – he later left the Pentagon during one workday to see the black comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As he rather chilling described in his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, he and his colleague Harry Rowen – later Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under Dick Cheney – left the theater in a daze, "both agreeing that what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary."
No doubt, Ellsberg had met his fair share of Strangelovian sorts – Generals Jack D. Ripper- and Buck Turgidson-types – up close and personal in his Pacific and Pentagon travels, but here’s the thing: he’s hardly convinced there are adults minding the store any better today. Describing the parallels between Trump-Biden and Ike-Kennedy-era Sino-saber-rattling over the Taiwan Strait, Ellsberg discomfiting concludes: "I do not believe the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet."
In other words, even "polite" liberals and fallible mid-level policy-managers might well gamble on, or blunder away, the survival of the species over – a more strategically inessential "prize" than most – distant little Taiwan…what with humans being (oft-irrationally) human and all.
Relevance#3: Challenging New Cold War Madness
That minor matter, the potentially existential risks of the current escalatory China-rhetoric and actions – about which we "democratic" citizens get no say – explains Ellsberg’s urgency, the timing of the release. A big part of the problem is that more than 60 years after the crisis described in the document, Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis it’s relationship with mainland China – and whether Washington would, could, or should defend it (perhaps with nuclear weapons) – remains strategically ambiguous. Nor, somehow, is that thermonuclear mass-murder option completely unthinkable even today. As the respected Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad argued, in reacting to Ellsberg’s release, if China invaded Taiwan now "it would put tremendous pressure on US policymakers, in the case of such a confrontation, to think about how they might deploy nuclear weapons." Look, he’s probably right – but that’s crazy talk.
Westad referred to the reality that such possibilities are likely being considered by Pentagon contingency planners, as "sobering;" Ellsberg called such 1958-reminiscent high-level discussions "shallow" and "reckless." Only it’s even worse than all that, since – although one rarely hears this elephant in the war room enunciated – American political and military leaders are ultimately raising the stakes, and risking the apocalyptic, over primacy in a Sea named after China and a Strait that’s the proximity-equivalent of the Florida Man Straits between Key West and Cuba.
In other words, it’s quite clear who’s really sailing on whose aquatic turf, and therefore who’s got more of a vital interest in securing it. Think that’s not an exceptionally perilous path to wade with a now well-[nuclear]-armed, economic powerhouse with over a billion citizens? Just imagine how Washington might respond if Beijing sailed one its two aircraft carriers (the US Navy, naturally, has eleven) clear past the revelers on Duval Street in Key West – as the US Navy essentially did just last month, through the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. Odds are it wouldn’t end well.
It turned out, in 1958, that the United States could safely suffer a communist China – just as it turned out, after 1964, that it could live with – just as we have for decades now – a nuclear-armed China. Imagine that. No doubt, we’d all be better off if all these thermonuclear suicide machines went the way of the dinosaur before our entire species does – but there’s no sense in risking all that unnecessarily.
Relevance#4: Defying the Government’s Policy Madness
My 99-year old beloved, if sometime-off-putting grandmother – who sincerely believed that the Beatles growing their hair long and the astronauts "fooling around up there [in space]" augured America’s hell-in-a-hand basket decline – died this past January. At the end her mind was pretty much prostrated by Alzheimer’s, but well into her nonagenarian years, Mary (née Maria Lompado) stayed surprisingly sharp. Still, without implying a shred of ageism (I hope), it’s hard to imagine her or many 90-year olds – or for that matter any-year-olds – deciding to single-handedly take on the US Government (again!) and risk spending the remainder of her life in prison. Only that’s exactly what Daniel Ellsberg is daring the Justice Department to do.
In a very real sense, besides hoping to temper today’s needless escalatory tensions with China, Ellsberg’s other goal in timing the classified document’s release is to challenge – expose even – Washington’s war on whistleblowers and general climate of dissenting speech-suppression. And, really, who better to do it?
The thing is, Ellsberg hasn’t just taken a chance of criminal indictment by releasing what he accurately assesses to be critical revelations: he wants to become a defendant in a test case challenging the Justice Department’s increased use of the Espionage Act to prosecute officials who leak information – even crucial revelations that are clearly in the public interest. That’s no small thing, and perhaps – though let’s hope he has Old Testament-level longevity – one last courageous challenge to government overreach and indecency, in a life dedicated to as much.
Daniel Ellsberg is essentially poking government prosecutors to indict, in order to test the limits and expose the abuses and inconsistencies of an archaic Espionage Act that should’ve been ditched more than a century ago – if for only for the taint of it’s authoritarian World War I liberty-squelching legacy. He’s ready – hoping even – to take such a case straight up the chain to the Supreme Court.
Though the move’s no doubt a risky one, Ellsberg’s is a bold and maybe brilliant pickle pitched the Washington’s way. The US government, especially helmed by the self-pronounced "ethics are back" Biden, could find itself trapped in a lose-lose situation against this legendary elder activist (whom, no doubt, many inside the administration grew up admiring). Think on it. Either:
A) The Justice Department decides not to indict – thereby delivering proof positive of the politicized, uneven, and oft-arbitrary nature of prosecutions under the abusive and overreaching Espionage Act. Plus, that could set a problematic precedent for future proceedings against the next public-interest leakers in line. And Lord knows the powerful don’t want to lose that cudgel from their speech-curtailing toolbox.
B) They do charge – demonstrating for all to see the government’s core capacity for cruelty when it comes to press and speech-suppression, in a sure to be public airing of its undemocratic dirty laundry. That’d require making a martyr of an American activist legend, and mean the Justice Department willfully placing itself on inverted trial in the court of public opinion.
That’s hardly an optimal set of available options, though no doubt the government has stupidly selected the heaviest hammer plenty times before.
Finally, Ellsberg lists Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden as number one and two, respectively, among his "Top 5 Whistleblowers," and no doubt his decision to dare the government to indict him, and risk dying in prison, is partly directed at their – and probably also Julian Assange’s – public vindication, and clearing a safer path for future Mannings and Snowdens to reveal vital truths that speak loudly to power. Ellsberg’s right about that much: America, and Americans, could sure use more of these sorts in this age of endless war.
When it comes to today’s unnecessary, unhinged, unwinnable, and (should be) unthinkable, American-escalated "New Cold War" with China, the Albert Einstein epigraph quote for Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine, is uncomfortably fitting: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
The "Father of Modern Physics" – who himself influenced the start of the Manhattan Project (to develop the first atomic bomb during World War II) – wrote those words 75 years ago, yet to listen to supposedly serious politicians, or read many establishment think tank "thinkers," it’s painfully apparent that powerful people’s "modes of thinking" still haven’t much changed.
So unless, Ellsberg’s brave and high-risk Hail Mary moves the needle more than usual – or plenty of true patriots get to doing more of the same en masse – it seems Americans, and rest of the un-consulted global citizenry, are sure to keep drifting towards catastrophe. Maybe even riding delusion to extinction. Ellsberg’s been arguing the same for several decades now, and although a recent profiler in The Nation wrote that "happiness isn’t a state of mind that Ellsberg wears on his sleeve," if nothing else he plans do go down fighting. When asked if, at 90-years old "he might slow down a bit" and pass the baton to younger activists, he replied: "I will be trying to alert people to the day that I die. I think our nuclear policy is…dangerously delusional." And so it is.
Daniel Ellsberg hasn’t an ounce of quit in him – and neither should we.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and director of the new Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen